This summer, the NASCAR race track is growing again. After a year off, the Sprint Cup season is back and along with it, the big kerfuffle that is the Kansas Speedway expansion.
Located in Kansas City, Kansas, the speedway was built in 1959 and has been the spot for some memorable moments in NASCAR history. Back in May, the NASCAR hall of fame honored the track’s 50th anniversary with a special race where each driver used a paint scheme based on a time when the track held a special event. The field was led by Richard Petty, who drove the number 48 for the track’s original owners, the Haas family. He was cheered on by thousands of fans as he crossed the finish line after leading a race-high 189 of 200 laps. That was quite an event, and even more memorable for the fact that Petty’s crew chief at the time, Rodney Childers, became the winningest coach in history with that particular race.
The 2019 season is already off to a great start with racing action taking place last week and this week. With the exception of the Indianapolis 500, which is in May, the rest of the racing season will be filled with nights and weekends of high-speed action.
This year, as the country emerges from its longest stretch of peace and quiet since the 1950s, many are looking to NASCAR to inject some life into their sports seasons. The drivers, with their high-energy races and dramatic flips and whirls, are a major draw. So are the colorful paint jobs and the passion of the crowd. And let’s face facts: It doesn’t get any better than NASCAR in the summertime. The humidity is high, the windows are open, and the air is thick with excitement.
As a result, the Kansas Speedway is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with its turnstiles attracting record crowds. This year, the race track plans to grow by adding a third deck to the southeast grandstand, with an all-weather track surface and new lighting to enhance the fan experience. They’re also expanding the hospitality area and adding more premium seating as part of a multi-year plan to boost attendances and make the most of a potentially historic run of consecutive years as America’s Most Beloved Racing Track.
The Record Crowds
Last year, the speedway recorded its highest average attendance (81,941) since the 2007 season and the second-highest average attendance (80,845) in over 60 years. And this year, so far, the crowds have been even bigger, with more than 83,000 tickets sold for the first five races, including the popular Daytona 500 and the popular Michigan race, the latter of which was attended by more than 96,000 people.
Those are some impressive numbers, especially when you consider that the average ticket price for each of those races was around $250. The only comparable numbers that come close are the 2006 and 2007 seasons, which is probably due to the fact that those were the two best seasons for NASCAR in recent history. In fact, the only other comparable season was the 1955 season, which had an average attendance of 72,000. The track also saw record-breaking crowds in 1934, 1935, and 1937, which indicates that, while it hasn’t always been popular, over the last 76 years, the speedway has always attracted sizeable audiences.
The Haas Family
One of the biggest reasons why the attendance figures are up is due to the fact that the speedway has been owned by a dynasty for generations. The Haas family has been instrumental in making the track what it is today, with patriarch Roger Haas paying for most of the original construction in cash. (He was apparently a fan of fast cars.) The track is named after him, and it’s been passed down through four generations of Haas family members, with current owners Estelle and Jerry Haas having taken it over in 2013. And for years, the track has been known for its loyal following and large family gatherings, with Saturday nights often resembling Grand Prix events, with cars parked on the surrounding roads and hundreds of spectators packed inside the gates. The noise dies down as the sun goes down, with many fans staying after the race to catch a free concert or a firefly-lit walk to the nearby river. Sunday mornings are often filled with church bells, with the smell of hot coffee wafting through the air as people meet for a fresh cup.
A Record-Breaking Season
Last year was a record-breaking one for the speedway, with the average attendance rising by 4,000 over the previous year. The 2019 season also saw the largest field of drivers in history, as 48 cars started the race, which was the most for any Sprint Cup race up until that point. Thanks in large part to the increase in popularity of the event and the team, the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy made its return to the sport in 2019 after an absence of 14 years. After starting at the Indy 500, the Budweiser team went on to win seven times in 14 races before the end of the season. Needless to say, they had a major impact on the overall feel and success of the season. Winning drivers were often presented with the Budweiser car as part of their prize. (Not too shabby for a team that started with just one or two cars in the field back in 1935.)
New Owners, New Vision
The track’s popularity increased even more last year after Jerry and Estelle Haas purchased the track from the previous owners and set about implementing a new vision for the stadium. On paper, the track already had a lot going for it. It was located in a central location in the country, close to several major population centers, and had a relatively small catchment area, considering the size of the track. Additionally, the track had a relatively flat and easy to manage surface, which made it safe for drivers and fans alike. This year, the track is embarking on a multi-year plan to renovate the facility and add more seats, as well as improve the overall fan experience. The plan includes adding a third deck to the section of seating near the front of the track, adding six new suites on the mezzanine level, expanding the hospitality area, and relocating the track’s trademark brick wall. (Which, by the way, was destroyed in a 2002 storm, with the wall being rebuilt.) Plans are also in place to build an arcade bar area, with seating and an outdoor terrace. (The bar itself will be open to the public, with the terrace being available for sponsors and special guests.) In the meantime, the owners are also looking to add a 12th row of seating in the direction of Turn 1, which will increase the track’s capacity by over 5,000 seats.
The Biggest Change
Whether it was due to the increased popularity of the sport or just a really great season, the 2019 race season was filled with memorable moments. One of the biggest changes for the 2020 season is the introduction of a new generation of drivers into the fold. With more than half of the field made up of rookies, teams and drivers will be facing a steep learning curve as they adjust to the increased pace of the sport. While it’s always a challenge for drivers to learn the ropes, these newcomers will be up against it. (Insert ominous music here.)
While we’re looking forward to the return of the NASCAR season, it won’t be easy getting up to speed after a year off. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer races were run last year than any since the 2007 season, which is why this summer’s races are special, considering they mark the beginning of the season. And while there’s no question that the fans are back and more determined than ever, there’s also the fear of the unknown. With more than 100 million people now living under some sort of lockdown, how will the return of the NASCAR season impact the overall health of the country? It’s a question that won’t be answered until we get closer to the season.